Friday, February 26, 2010

My original mannequin feature

As I mentioned in my last post, in 2005 I wrote a newspaper feature story on mannequins for The Age. The version that was ultimately published is quite different to the original, spiked, version, which I've just discovered now while searching for a transcript of my interview with Daisy Veitch of Sharp Dummies. Perhaps you'd like to read it?

As a child, I was terrified of mannequins. They towered over me with their stiff poses and pallid plastic skin. I was afraid to look at them in case their painted-on eyes swivelled to glare at me. Yet I couldn’t look away, because I was convinced they could creep up behind me when my back was turned.

I wasn’t the only one. Contributors to the childhood beliefs website I Used to Believe confess to thinking mannequins were real people who’d been punished for shoplifting, or for not making it out of the store by closing time. One tormented girl was afraid to touch them in case she turned into a mannequin herself!

Wobbly logic aside, kids recognise freakishness when they see it. Mannequins embody a mass of contradictions – lifelike but not alive, sexually provocative without genitals; warm, soft flesh cast in cold, unyielding fibreglass. They flirt with how a human body can look – and hint at what makes a body human.

Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the term “uncanny valley” to describe the disquiet sparked by those contradictions. In his 1982 book The Buddha in the Robot, Mori observed that the more human an object appears, the more we empathise with it. But when the simulation is almost perfect, we start to feel something’s very, very wrong. This is the uncanny valley.

Eighteenth century wax modellers knew this, and exploited it. Galleries of notorious thieves offered a macabre thrill of authenticity because they were modelled from executed corpses. Other exhibits created believable fantasy worlds. The setpiece in the salon of Madame Tussaud’s mentor, Dr Philippe Curtius, was an astonishingly vivid but entirely invented tableau of the French royal family eating dinner at Versailles.

Visiting Madame Tussaud’s still gives spectators a frisson. The gallery encourages visitors to flout protocol and caress the Queen, or impertinently fondle Elle Macpherson. Still, you’ll never feel her ineffable star quality. It’s just a dummy, after all.

Nowhere is the elusive celebrity body more starkly highlighted than in the museum. Lindie Ward is assistant curator in international decorative arts and design at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. She says the Powerhouse’s vast collection of provenance costume – clothing with a personal history – demands more of mannequins.

“When we did the Moulin Rouge exhibition, we had some adapted to Nicole [Kidman]’s very slim, long figure, because we couldn’t fit anything on any other way,” Ward explains.

Ward has devised bendable wire mannequins that subtly fill the costume as a body might. “You don’t need to have the wire showing at all, so you can get the exact shape of the garment,” she says.

You enter another kind of uncanny valley when you look at these mannequins. The body is creepily absent, leaving behind only traces of sweat and makeup. Sometimes it even spooks Ward.

Several years ago, she was dressing an exhibition of gay and lesbian Mardi Gras costumes, but grew uncomfortable making the mannequin for a full body suit worn by artist and AIDS activist Brenton Heath-Kerr.

“I must say, I had to keep walking away from it, because sadly he had died a couple of years before.”

In the early 1960s, British window dresser Adel Rootstein translated the uncanny appeal of celebrity mannequins into worldwide success. For Rootstein, the plaster and papier-maché mannequins then used in shop windows were stiff and lifeless, failing dismally to capture the spirit of Swinging London.

Rootstein’s fibreglass mannequins actually swing, striking dramatic poses and lounging insouciantly. They embody the zeitgeist because they’re modelled on the very celebrities who become fashion icons – Twiggy, Sandie Shaw, Joanna Lumley, Marie Helvin, Joan Collins, Yasmin Le Bon, Saffron Burrows and Jodie Kidd.

Rootsteins are the Rolls-Royce of the mannequin business. Each figure takes thirty days to make from a live model. After initial measurements and photographs, the head and body are sculpted in clay around a wire armature. The hands and feet are moulded in dental silicon, and successive plaster and fibreglass casts made. Artists individually apply each mannequin’s makeup using oil paints, and hair stylists select and cut wigs to customers’ specifications.

The time and effort pays off. These figures are so gracefully posed and carefully rendered that you’re almost embarrassed to have glimpsed them in the nude. Still, it’s striking how similar they look. Even despite racial differences, they all have long legs, slender necks, slim hips and pert breasts.

Such mannequins can’t be called ‘realistic’, no matter how lifelike they look. But if we expect mannequins to be socially inclusive, maybe we’re the unrealistic ones.

Some commentators have praised the recent trend towards larger mannequins, saying they finally reflect real women’s bodies. Last year, New York designer Ralph Pucci released an enormously popular mannequin whose derriere was modelled on curvaceous actor-singer Jennifer Lopez.

But retailers aren’t interested in making “a statement about what size people are,” says Melbourne-based mannequin maker Phil Russell. “Mannequins are really just to display the clothes.”

Russell’s boutique company, Mannequin Revolution, works directly with clients to create or rework mannequins for specific displays. Its output includes hourglass-figured mannequins for fashion brand Review, stylised gangsters and molls for city tailor Anton’s, and the pint-sized dummies modelling Kylie Minogue’s famous gold hotpants in the Victorian Arts Centre’s current exhibition.

Mannequin Revolution has also produced dark-skinned mannequins – but not for diversity’s sake. Russell’s clients see memorable mannequins as good business sense.

“People have gotta have a point of difference, you know?” he says. “I only do a couple [of black mannequins] here and there because it decreases the impact. It floods the market.”

But for some, mannequins are more about pleasure than business. In the ancient Greek story of Pygmalion, a sculptor falls in love with his creation. Plenty of movies, including the 1987 film Mannequin, perpetuate the fantasy of a mannequin as a compliant vessel for male desire.

Of course, men have been able to buy artificial women for centuries. Dr Curtius had a profitable sideline in erotic wax dummies for the boudoir. In 1920, the painter Oskar Kokoschka obtained a life-size replica of his ex-girlfriend, Alma Mahler; although in his memoirs, he coyly avoided the question of whether he slept with it. And last Christmas, Sydney shoe store Hype DC dramatised the link between sex and consumerism – and caused an outcry – when it used inflatable sex dolls as store window mannequins.

Then there are RealDolls. Advertised online as “the world’s finest love doll,” they’re smack bang in the uncanny valley. Special effects artist Matt McMullen created them almost by accident in 1996, while working on a prototype for an extra-realistic mannequin.

“I had a website going, and people kept e-mailing, asking if I could make a love doll,” McMullen recalled in 2000. “So I changed my design. Now you have RealDoll.”

RealDolls are made of solid yet pliable silicon moulded around a metal skeleton. They weigh as much as a woman and have a similar range of movement. Where mannequin groins are fibreglass blanks, RealDolls are anatomically correct. And they’re totally customised – you choose everything from your doll’s eye colour to her bikini wax preference. All for the bargain price of US$6499.

It’s easy to dismiss RealDolls as misogynist fantasies. But they’re a powerful reminder of how we use cutting-edge technology to flesh out our desires. In the stories, magic brings mannequins to life – and isn’t technology the magic of our era?

New mannequin technology isn’t always this perverse. In 2001, Adelaide company SHARP Dummies conducted Australia’s first anthropometric sizing survey since 1927. And intriguingly, the technology it used then also produces mannequins that behave like human bodies.

SHARP creates mannequins using a mixture of tape measuring, body casting, and a laser body scanner. This creates a near-perfect copy of the live model, complete with creases, dimples and fat rolls. SHARP dummies also boast what founder Daisy Veitch calls “biofidelity.”

“A person is made from bones and tissue and muscle; our dummies are made from composite materials,” Veitch explains. SHARP overlays a hard skeleton with foam, silicon and polyurethane padding, with underlying cavities to simulate compression. There’s extra padding on the bits that make so many women self-conscious – the bottom, hips, breasts, and upper arms.

Unlike their fibreglass cousins, SHARP dummies aren’t meant for shop windows. They’re meant to make clothes look good on you. They help apparel manufacturers get an accurate fit for tight clothing like hipster jeans and underwear. Conventional mannequins just can’t deliver that kind of realism.

Displaying clothes on skinny mannequins “is a successful strategy, and it’s okay to advertise like that,” says Veitch. “The problem is when people take the clothes off the dummy and try them on, and they don’t fit.”

It’s certainly fitting that the most disquieting mannequin technology of all comes from the country that invented the uncanny valley. Japanese firm Flower Robotics has developed a mannequin robot named Palette that senses nearby shoppers and uses motion-capture technology to pose for them in window displays. Palette can also detect the age and gender of shoppers for marketing purposes.

Curiously, Palette has no face. Its inventor says customers should focus on the mannequin’s clothes. But perhaps it’s just as well. While we like our mannequins as lifelike as possible, we don’t want them too human.

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